Thursday, February 28, 2013

"Such Alone Will Shake The Gates Of Hell"

Give me one hundred preachers who fear nothing but sin, and desire nothing but God, and I care not a straw whether they be clergymen or laymen; such alone will shake the gates of hell and set up the kingdom of heaven on Earth. - John Wesley

I love this line.

Entering my seventh month in an administrative position in a small United Methodist Church in the northwest Chicago suburbs, I've learned a few things.

Thing One: A line like this would land like a chorus of farts in most congregations.  See, a name was misspelled in the bulletin, and you do know that we just can't adopt technology that would make giving easier and is proven to increase giving because someone somewhere might notice people aren't putting anything in the offering plate on Sunday.  Oh, and did I mention that a birthday was mentioned of a person who hasn't darkened the doorway of the church building in almost five years.

Even more than Lazarus' death, this is the kind of thing that makes Jesus weep.

Thing Two: If churches actually heard a line like this, not necessarily over and over, but perhaps just two or three times, some folks might think, "Really?  We can do that?"  Not everyone; one thing is as sure as God made the sun rise in the east, and that's the simple fact some folks will complain about everything.

Thing Three: I think this phrase should be emblazoned above every United Methodist sanctuary in the United States.  Maybe the world.  John Wesley wasn't messing around; of course, I doubt John Wesley knew how to mess around.  Even the smallest congregation has is something that should inspire awe in any group gathered together calling itself "church".

I shouldn't sound so harsh.  Our churches, regardless of size, already do so much in and for this hurting world.  And, of course, it is never enough.  All the same, we need to be reminded just who we are, and what we could do, if we let go of our fear that someone might notice we're being faithful. 

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

I Have Some Questions

The latest iteration of our largely stupid gun debate was the so-called "Day of Resistance", featuring people walking around on Saturday with rifles strapped to their backs.  Because nothing says "freedom" like a bunch of strangers itching to shoot someone, am I right?

I've been largely silent about the whole gun debate for quite a while, because I am enraged by that most vocal minority who seem to insist, despite all the evidence to the contrary, that their inalienable right to own a murderous weapon trumps all other rights defined by the Constitution.  It trumps our collective need for safe and secure communities.  It even seems to trump the nation itself, these so-called patriots insisting that this right is an anti-governmental right, never once caring about the inherent contradiction in such a position.

But I digress.

The topic isn't the law or constitutional propriety of gun control.  Even under the Heller decision, regulation and prohibition of gun sales and ownership is allowable.  What's been proposed, and passed in New York, can best be called cosmetic changes to gun laws - reducing magazine capacity; restricting the sale and possession of a few types of weapons whose only purpose is the killing of other human beings; doing research on gun violence that has been blocked for far too long by the NRA - and all of it is certainly out of all proportion to the need to act.

Which leads me to my topic: In the wake of the Newtown massacre, many "gun rights advocates" have been overly vocal, insisting with the caps lock broken both literally and figuratively that whatever is proposed or passed, it is all about attacking them.  You hear it and read it all the time, how "law abiding gun owners" are being vilified.  You read about the impending gun-grab, which is never proposed nor even thought.  The Day of Resistance was set for February 23 because the ammunition size, .223, is one held up by gun control activists as particularly vile because it fits in civilian style semi-automatic weapons designed to look like military rifles.

It is the ammunition the shooter used in Newtown to kill 26 people, 20 of them children.

I have a question that I know will never be answered in any satisfactory way, but it should be asked: What the hell is wrong with you people?  Let's pretend for a moment that the body count hasn't continued to rise, with over 2,000 corpses in the two months since Newtown.  Let's pretend for a moment that Columbine and Aurora and Ft. Hood and Portland and all the other mass shootings never took place, that what happened in Newtown, CT was some kind of aberration instead of the regular sacrifice of life that seems necessary to ensure the continuing presence of guns in our national life.  Let's pretend all that so someone can tell me how a bunch of people being slightly inconvenienced is such a threat to fundamental liberty.  Let's pretend all this and someone tell me if anyone has given a moment's thought not to themselves but to the families who had to spend the week before Christmas burying their children, presents for them sitting under their Christmas trees never to be unwrapped.

This is something more than narcissism.  The way this whole thing turned from a necessary consideration of steps to make it more difficult for people to create corpses into an ugly shoutfest featuring our worst citizens insisting, "IT'S ALL ABOUT ME!!!!" makes me wonder if it's even possible for a society such as ours to govern itself.  Ours is not a society aided by modern communications technology, as the small minority of people who believe the lies of the NRA are amplified beyond any reasonable sense of proportion.  Apparently, there continues to be the thought that if one shouts loud enough and long enough, people won't notice how few people are actually shouting.

Just as an aside, I should also note there are people on FB friend list who do this kind of thing.  They copy and paste the same crazy photos and memes, repeating the nonsense about Obama being a tyrant and how owning a gun is the most sacred of all the Constitutional liberties, blah-blah-blah.  Some of them are not stupid people by any means.  They are teachers and preachers, some who I've known since we were kids.  I really want to ask them: Really?  Have you actually looked at what's being done before posting that thing about Obama being a dictator?  Do you really think you're right to purchase a gun - and, really, isn't this enshrining consumerism as a constitutionally protected right? - trumps any sense that we live together in a society in which we need to live together in peace and quiet and, most of all, trust?  Have you given even one second's thought to the families of those dead children?  Or, has it all been a sudden rush of fear that this incident, of all the shootings and death across our land, would be used to inconvenience you?

If you buy the nonsense about tyranny and gun-grabbing and our barely contained state of nature outlined by Wayne LaPierre, then I really have very little respect for you.  Since there is not a shred of evidence to support it, if you just click "Share", or copy and paste stuff from others without thinking, then you are worse than stupid.  You are allowing yourself to be duped by people who's agenda is quite simple - they want money.  Specifically, money from gun sales.  They'll take your money and make your homes quite a bit less safe, and then tell you it's all about freedom, and you lap it up because . . . why, exactly?

With roughly a thousand corpses a month thanks to gun violence - homicides and suicides, accidental shootings and domestic disturbances that escalate to murderous violence - we need to act.  The steps on offer barely scratch the surface of what should be done.  Yet we are distracted from acting by a small group under the influence of gun manufacturers, a small group into whose ears are whispered threats of tyranny and oppression disguised as well-meaning legislation.

How do these people sleep at night, with the voices of the dead pleading for action?

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Catholicism I Love

With yet another accusation against yet another Roman cleric, I find myself in a strange position, beset by conflicting feelings and attitudes.  First, as a non-Roman Catholic - indeed, a proud member of that body of Christians the current, retiring Pontiff insists should return to the ancient faith for the sake of our soul's eternal peace - there's a large part of me that couldn't care less about the whole institution.  That a bureaucratic game-player with ultra-montane tendencies managed to finagle his way to the Throne of St. Peter is neither unsurprising nor disheartening (unless you are still one of those who believe the Papacy a divine institution, in which case you probably aren't reading this blog post).

Second, as a human being with normal moral and empathetic sensibilities, the on-going scandal involving the sexual abuse by the clerisy of those placed under their charge enrages me no end.   The absolute refusal of any part of the institutional Roman Church to address this in a manner that resembles anything Christian infuriates me even more.  Their latest gambit - Let's Blame The Gays! - is failing miserably, as it should.

Finally, in between insouciance and rage is a kind of sentimental fondness for at least part of what the Roman Catholic Church has been in its sixteen or so centuries of existence.  To whit, in a Europe beset by rival princes and panjandrums, rival paganisms and the rise of Islam, as learning and trade and communication withered on the vine, the Holy Mother Church not only held at least some ancient learning in its loving arms; through the hard, often dangerous work of monks - especially those from Ireland - that learning was spread to the rest of a continent struggling to escape the many assaults upon it.  Even in the Darkest of what was once called The Dark Ages, there were those who believed it their calling from God to spread learning and understanding far and wide.

When the Crusaders brought back the news that their Muslim enemies were both better-learned and more advanced, the Roman Church was at the forefront of investing in education, helping the growing cities and towns catch up, understanding that if Christendom was to compete with their neighbors, they needed learning and understanding of their own.

The Church was, while perhaps neither cradle or even the womb of the Renaissance and subsequent expansion of knowledge and understanding, and was certainly its sworn enemy at many points, I have often felt it was at least partially the seed-bed of those movements that awakened much of the European continent from its too-long slumber.

From St. Augustine and his predecessors in the West (as well as the Cappadocians in the East) through Erasmus, the great, level-headed humanistic opponent of Martin Luther, the Roman Church nurtured many scoundrels and scandals to be sure; it snuffed out reformers like Wycliffe and Hus and Peter Waldo; its Popes became Warrior-Kings, far more concerned with winning battles than souls to the One True Faith; those who disagreed, whether Jew or heretic, found themselves living a life of perpetual peril.  All these things are true enough.

If that were the only truth, I would perhaps not be worried so.  Yet there were other stories as well. St. Francis and St. Dominic.  William of Occam, opposing the papal division, writing tracts on the need for political unity on the European continent.  St. Thomas taking what he learned from Albertus Magnus and offering a view of God's Divine action that was both rational and grace-filled.

And still and always, the brother and sisters in monks and convents, their days ever circling the need for prayer and praise for the world to God; because of the peculiarities of geography and the insistent schedule of the Hours, each hour there are still monks and nuns praying for our world, lifting all creation up to the care of the Creator.  This is a marvelous, awe-inspiring testimony to the power of faith, a power that we Protestants have, I think, lost in our enthusiasms.

Perhaps the best thing for the Roman Catholic Church would be for Vatican City to dissolve itself as a nation-state and open its archives and books to outside auditors and inspectors; for the election of the Pope no longer to be about pretending to a tradition tracing back to St. Peter but the simple politics of maintaining the status quo, and for those outside the Church who are simultaneously fascinated and repelled by the practice of celibacy to recognize its worth as a spiritual practice as long as the Mother Church recognize the way it could lead to the horrors of abuse from around the globe.

There is a Catholicism I love.  For now, it is eclipsed by the Catholic Church I despise, ruled by men beneath contempt.  Perhaps, in my lifetime, it will understand that redemption begins with repentance.  At this moment, that is my prayer.

Outside The Mainstream

Thanks to Facebook, I stumbled across this interview with Jon Durant.  Thanks to the digital age of music production and distribution, excellent musicians such as he can create and release excellent works and get them in the hands and ears of fans with little muss and no fuss.  His collaborator on this project is Colin Edwin, bass player in Porcupine Tree.  Like PT's founder, Steven Wilson, Edwin is involved in a variety of musical projects outside his long association with Porcupine Tree (20 years this year).  One is a heavy metal band, Random Noise Generator.
Another is the unclassifiable Metallic Taste of Blood.
Still another is the ambient heavy metal/electronica duo Ex-Wise Heads
Finally, there is his work with Durant, mentioned above, under the title Burnt Belief.
None of these musical projects share anything but Edwin's presence.  None are in any way commercial projects.  Yet, all are available for people to purchase and listen despite the enormous pressures on mainstream music from the major labels in a time when the amount of money available seems to shrink.  The reason for this is simple enough.  Technology has made the majors important only for those artists and musicians who would prefer making a lot of money and having their names recognized and their faces in the tabloids.

A few decades ago, producing music like this would take hours and hours of studio time that cost a lot of money.  Then there was the mix, which could take days, again at enormous expense.  Finally, masters would need to be made, from which the pressings would flow.  The whole process was time-consuming and expensive, with a need for sound engineered spaces and the huge analog equipment necessary for the whole process.

Now, it can be done in a room, and collaborators can email unfinished tracks to one another, add layers and overdubs, then send them back for comment and tweaking.  The whole process is fairly inexpensive and certainly not nearly as time consuming as it once was (although there are bands, like Marillion, that take an inordinate amount of time to work on an album; they worked for two years, on and off, producing Marbles).

I guess my only point here, beyond featuring some exciting, interesting, avant-garde music from a gifted musician and his many collaborators, is to point out, yet again, what an exciting time it is both for musicians and fans of music.  Quite literally anything is available for people who keep their ears open; musicians have more opportunities than ever to offer all sorts of music to the public.

So let us all celebrate the on-going slow collapse of the corporate business model for music production and distribution!

An Actual Real Discussion On The Internet!

Rarer than hen's teeth or a full bottle of booze in John Boehner's liquor cabinet!

It starts with a book review at Salon.  It moves over to a critical note at Lawyers, Guns, & Money.

Best of all, while the comment sections of both posts are haunted by idiotic Christian trolls, there are actual discussions and amplifications that add both heat and light to a fascinating topic.

Not knowing nearly as much as I should about the whole context, while perhaps having some investment in one side of the discussion, I refuse to take a stand on the historical verdict, or the dissent from that verdict.  Suffice it to say that, every once in a while, it is possible to have an adult discussion and disagreement on the 'net, complete with trolls, in which readers learn things.

I recommend both, if you're interested.

Sunday, February 24, 2013

Sex In Church

Well, talking about it anyway . . .
Allegheny College's Ford Memorial Chapel, which conducts Catholic mass and non-denominational services every week, hosted a sex-positive class last Wednesday focusing on topics like the female orgasm, body image, and consent.

Of course, there's more.  What other reasons would there be for the anti-sex crowd to froth at the mouth about this?
[T]he sex educators had also told students masturbation is not a sin.
"Some people figure out masturbation and orgasm as teenagers, some people figure it out later than that," said Weinberg, describing her lifelong fascination with pleasuring herself. "And some people figure it out earlier than that. Like preschool age. I was part of that last category."
If that wasn't bad enough:
 "Sometimes it can be difficult finding your G spot by yourself, because it involves inserting a finger or fingers inside the vagina into the front wall of the body, and that kind of results in an awkward, kind of clawlike hand position," Weinberg said, demonstrating with a pawing motion as the audience giggled. "Obviously, there are better ways you can position your body. Or if you've got a partner, you can get your partner to insert their finger or fingers inside your vagina in the front wall of your body in a sort of a J curve."
The outrage!  A bunch of college students learning stuff!  About an important part of their lives!  In a positive, safe environment!  And some of them giggled!

Of course, pederast apologist Bill Donohue sent "a strongly worded letter" to the college President.  Apparently, spending much of your time defending boy-child rapists in the Catholic Church makes you forget there's another gender out there.

I have a rule.  In fact, on a ride to see our life insurance agent Friday afternoon, my wife and I were talking about this very rule.  There is no more safe place to talk about anything than church.  The fact that this is a non-denominational chapel on the campus of a private college unaffiliated with any religious denomination  doesn't make this any less holy ground.  While the college patiently explained to anyone interested that the space was used because it was the only one large enough to accommodate the expected audience, this doesn't lessen the reality that, far from being outraged that this particular topic used space also utilized for Christian worship, I'm glad.

Because, you know, God made sex.  It isn't like us talking about it is either going to offend or surprise God.  The only thing that might surprise God is that some folks are talking about it in healthy, positive ways.  Particularly for women.

Finally, I should probably add that folks who get upset over stuff like this really need more to do.

Virtual Tin Cup

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